Ambiguous Loss and Complicated Grief

There is something in the credibility of ambiguous grief experience that is impossible to match. I recently entered my second known experience of ambiguous grief.

But let us explore the issues of ambiguous loss and complicated grief so we may understand them.

Ambiguous loss is loss that occurs without finality or understanding. This can involve the experience of grief because of ongoing loss. Ambiguous loss is a mental and emotional no man’s land. Complicated grief occurs when we are “stuck” and can’t get past the pain. The grief work we engaged in has not yet resolved our grief. Given that most grief involves harrowing intensity for up to twelve months – and it is usually resolved within a year – complicated grief can last for years, and in some cases a whole lifetime. But there is always hope for healing if a person is diligent and surrendered enough to detach from spiritual distractions to their grief.

Many people experience complicated grief because of compounding issues of loss over the years that either could not be dealt with or weren’t dealt with – for whatever reason. The outputs of complicated grief are often, though not always, anxiety and depression. Likewise, ambiguous loss is likely to cast us into a place of continual and fatiguing helplessness, which may produce debilitating and despairing depression.

Many of us have experienced ambiguous loss; an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s disease; a marriage that hasn’t worked (especially abusive or neglectful marriages) for years; living day to day from an unsustainable income; living on the edge when someone dear to us has had stage four cancer; waiting for death, in its imminence, to come; the sudden, yet gradual, loss of innocence when a child is violated and continues to be abused.

For many of us, also, there is this pressing matter of complicated grief, whereby our depression and anxiety (or stoic denial of either or both) are actually covers for the real matter of grief lived out within a complex web of dynamics. Grief is often the clearest invitation to adjust into maturity by taking responsibility for our lives. It always takes longer than we would hope.

We may never have learned how to cope with grief. But the beauty of investing in the right way to cope with loss is we have a model that helps and works for instances of subsequent loss. The only right way to cope is to do all the right things as much as possible. Coping and growth always involve pain.


Ambiguous grief shares elements of ambiguous loss and complicated grief.

Ambiguous grief involves a ‘new normal’ that hasn’t arrived yet. Losses are continually experienced, which brings ongoing pain. Growth in resilience is the opportunity as we learn to tolerate unresolved grief. There is no easy way to do hard work, but God’s grace makes resilience possible.

© 2014 S. J. Wickham.